Dooars are the alluvial floodplains in northeastern India that lie south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas and north of the Brahmaputra River basin stretching from the Teesta River in West Bengal to the Dhanshiri River in Assam. The region forms the gateway to Bhutan. Dooars is famous for tea, tourism and timber.
Dooars means ‘doors’ in Assamese, Bengali, Maithili and many other Indian languages. It has originated from the Sanskrit word — dwar, which means door in English. There are around 18 passages or gateways between the hills in Bhutan and the plains in India.
We were thinking of spending a couple of days on the lap of beautiful nature and greeneries of Dooars. We booked a cab for Lataguri from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. We planned for it while traveling by train from Kolkata. It was an extempore programme.
On boarding the cab in the morning, we first went to Santa Banta Restaurant in Siliguri for our breakfast.
It’s a nice restaurant and the owner ensured that we enjoy the breakfast. After our good breakfast consisting of Dahi-Parantha and Puri Aloo-subzi, we proceeded towards Lataguri.
The road National Highway (NH) 31 gets forked near the Sevokeshwari temple on the Teesta river. NH 31 goes towards Guwahati crossing the magnificent Teesta river while NH 31A goes up towards Gangtok. We crossed Teesta river by a famous bridge called Coronation bridge.
The bridge was named to commemorate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 and was completed in 1941.
Many locals call this bridge as “Baghpul” for the statues of tigers (Bagh, in Bengali) at both the ends of the bridge. We moved on NH 31 with green tea gardens of Dooars on both sides of the road. It’s a lovely sight, all throughout!
The drive is truly adventurous because the road crosses quite a few elephant corridors and you have to drive very cautiously to avoid a face to face encounter with the wild inhabitants particularly, with the more gargantuan species. But, we were unlucky to encounter any elephant on the way.
We reached lush green Lataguri. ‘Lata’ means wood and ‘guri’ means denotes log. Lataguri is around 2-hour drive from Siliguri via Malbazar. Located on the outskirts of Gorumari National Park itself, Lataguri is the perfect place to set free the wild child in you.
The market place at Lataguri is only a kilometre away from the main entrance of the forest. There are also plenty of hotels and resorts in the area which are quite reasonably priced.
We looked for resorts with air-conditioned rooms. We then checked into Sonar Bangla Resort.
It’s a nice resort. The owner was quite friendly. Their services are quite good. Rooms are clean and tidy. It being an off-season, we got an air-conditioned room for ₹1,800 ($28) only!
Tirthankar, the owner of the resort informed us that the forest is closed in the Monsoon season from 16 June to 15 September. Yes, forests are shut during this period as it is the animal mating season. Tirthankar added that we could go up to Medla Watchtower, which is located at Kalipur eco-village near Ramsai on the eastern fringe of Gorumara National Park. The ticket sale starts at 4 pm. That excited us and we hurriedly checked in, took our lunch at the resort and then left for Ramsai for Medla Watchtower.
The main road crisscrossing the town South-North is the original NH 31. There is one road originating from this highway near Lataguri Welfare Association towards Lataguri railway station and moving east crossing the forest to reach Ramsai.
GORUMARA NATIONAL PARK
Gorumara National Park is situated in the flood plains of the Murti River and the Jaldhaka River of the Dooars region in the Jalpaiguri District of the Indian state of West Bengal. This park is around 15 km from Lataguri and contains landscapes, forests and streams. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1949 and has forests spreading across 80 km. From the wildlife sanctuary, it was declared a National Park in 1992. Gorumara was a reserve forest since 1895. The park has been declared as the best among the protected areas in India by the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the year 2009.
Surrounded by mountain ranges, the park boasts of three of the biggest names in Indian wildlife — the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, the Indian bison and the Indian elephant. It is also home to around 200 birds including minivet, drongo, pheasants and Indian pied hornbill, Brahminy ducks, among others. The park has various trees including sal (Shorea robusta). Apart from this, various other trees like siris, khair, teak and simul can also be found in the park.
There are some villages around the forest — Sarswati, Budhuram, Bichabhanga, Chatua, Kalipur and Murti Forest Village. We reached Budhuram gate at Ramsai by 4 pm for visiting Medla Watchtower. There were several vehicles were also there carrying off-season tourists like us.
There are unique buffalo-cart driven forest safari available here. Buffalo-carts carry the tourists and nature guides up to the watchtower. I am not aware of any jungle safari on buffalo carts. It’s interesting!
There were seven buffalo carts carrying 6-7 persons on each cart. The nature guides and buffalo carts are organised by a local self-help group — Gorumara Nature Guide S.H.G.
After buying tickets, we had almost 45 minutes before the beginning of the safari. Buffalo cart charges are ₹40 ($0.63) per visitor and Guide fee is ₹80 ($1.25) per guide are charged extra. One guide is attached to a group of 4-6 visitors.
We walked around and had tea at a nearby teahouse. The tea was refreshing!
Then we were informed that buffalo carts were ready for safari and so we walked behind the ticketing office and a small, beautiful butterfly garden. Just behind the ticket counter of Medla Watchtower is the location of an open-air Ramsai Butterfly Garden.
The Garden has facility for breeding butterflies and although the Garden does not have any cover, one can see hundreds of butterflies of different species in here.
The name of the guards were mentioned on the tickets. Our guide directed us to ride one of the carts and we did so. There were a few Shiva temples near the cart boarding point.
We were three people and so another group of three tourists also accompanied us in our cart. All the buffalo carts began the journey in tandem. It was a nice experience. I last rode a buffalo cart almost three decades ago while I was on my rural posting.
On the left hand side, there is a sprawling tea garden, while on the right is the forest behind the Jaldhaka river. Jaldhaka river is the major river of the park. It’s a tributary of the Brahmaputra river system. This river started from a glacier lake named Kupup in Sikkim and travelled through Bhutan to reach the plains of West Bengal. We were anxiously waiting to spot any wildlife on the river bank. Except for some isolated animals at a distance, we couldn’t see any animal.
After around 25-minute ride, we reached the Medla Watchtower. The tower was around 300 meters away from the point the bullock carts dropped us. We walked to the double-storeyed tower.
We climbed up the tower to have a look around. The sight of nature was amazing although absence of wildlife was a bit depressing. Suddenly we could see some Indian bisons at a distance grazing on the grassland.
The watchtower is said to be a very good place for watching rhino and elephant as they come to the salt pit situated just near the tower.
A salt pit is a place where animals can go to lick essential mineral nutrients from a deposit of salts and other minerals. Such pits are especially important in ecosystems with poor general availability of nutrients. Harsh weather exposes salty mineral deposits that draw animals from miles away for a taste of needed nutrients. Salt pits are used to attract or maintain wildlife for viewing, photography and farming purposes.
There is a live show of the ethnic tribal dance can be seen every evening in Budhuram forest village. The tickets for the safari also included watching live show of ethnic tribal dance. From watchtower, we again rode the bullock carts to the forest village. We were served with tea and biscuits. The local villagers entertained us with their music and dance.
I liked this idea of packaging safari with evening tribal folk-dance performance as the money would go towards them to sustain and develop their ethnic dance and other art forms.
Spotting wildlife in the forest is a sheer piece of luck and this unpredictability of the forest makes the trip really enjoyable. We were not upset as we missed seeing the wild animals from close quarters. Instead, we enjoyed the tranquility of the forest, its own distinct sounds — the crickets and the chirping of the birds. The feeling of being absolutely one with Mother Nature is an experience to treasure particularly once you come back to the folds of urban existence. The topping was the entertaining gig by the ethnic tribal dancers.